From 'The Pale Ones' to, erm, 'Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh': 10 legendary metal bands that used to have incredibly goofy names

Photos of Corey Taylor, Ozzy Osbourne, Eddie Van Halen and Bruce Dickinson
(Image credit: Slipknot: George De Sota/Redferns | Black Sabbath: Chris Walter/WireImage | Van Halen: Chris Walter/WireImage | Iron Maiden: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” We say, “There’s no way Black Sabbath would have ever been cool if they kept the name ‘The Polka Tulk Blues Band’.”

The early years of a band are wildly experimental, full of off-the-wall ideas from countless influences before the members truly know what their own sound and imagery will be. Sometimes, in that journey from scrappy youngsters to iconic musicians, you need to change your name to reflect what your refined music and ideas are. So, here are 10 heavy bands that became immortal, despite starting off with some of the lamest names we’ve ever heard.

Metal Hammer line break

Van Halen (formerly Genesis and Mammoth)

Van Halen was the perfect name for Van Halen. Not only were the brothers Van Halen the nucleus of the band, but the moniker only helped guitarist Eddie Van Halen become a household name as the quintessential player of his generation. Apparently David Lee Roth encouraged the band being named after Eddie and drummer Alex – if that’s true, he’s a genius. Prior names Genesis and Mammoth were more generic and, in the former’s case, already taken. Wolfgang Van Halen using Mammoth WVH as a tribute is quite touching, though.

Slipknot (formerly The Pale Ones)

Slipknot is an excellent name. It’s not so overtly brutal as to be uncommercial, but it’s distinct and carries creepy, morbid undertones. It’s an underrated part of the mixture – which also includes riotous music and those horrific masks – that made The Nine fast stars. Plus, it’s infinitely better than The Pale Ones, which the Iowans were fleetingly called in the mid-’90s. It sounds like the name of your older brother’s emo gang who think they’re way edgier than they are.

Black Sabbath (formerly The Polka Tulk Blues Band)

Black Sabbath pioneered heavy metal and that name embodies much of the subversion that would later define the genre’s imagery. What’s more metal than something holy, like the sabbath, and making it sound evil and perverted? We can thank an obscure Boris Karloff movie for inspiring the name Ozzy Osbourne and crew finally settled on, since its predecessors included The Polka Tulk Blues Band and Earth. The Polka Tulk Blues Band! Imagine formulating the most evil-sounding genre of all time with the name The Polka Tulk Blues Band.

Iron Maiden (formerly Ash Mountain)

Between Eddie and that unique red logo, Iron Maiden may be the most recognisable brand in all of metal. It’s hard to imagine a time when Maiden weren’t Maiden but, before they played their first show, they toyed with calling themselves Ash Mountain. It just sounds a bit plain, doesn’t it? Today, Iron Maiden is a heavy metal institution first and a torture device second – meanwhile, Ash Mountain is also a place, a book and, umm, something in Elder Scrolls?

Pearl Jam (formerly Mookie Blaylock)

Pearl Jam is a euphemism for cum. That instantly disqualifies it from entering the upper echelon of great band names, but at least it’s nowadays more synonymous with excellent alt-rock than love gunk. Eddie Vedder and the boys have also always been coy about its origins, playing it off as an ode to Neil Young and the singer’s gran, or something? Mookie Blaylock, meanwhile, is a basketball player with a very silly nickname. Naming your band after him doesn’t make said nickname any less silly, sadly.

Linkin Park (formerly Xero)

Xero (pronounced “zero”) probably isn’t the worst name in the world but, when you’re a band that aimed as high as Linkin Park did on their debut album, it would have presented a problem. Said problem is the fact that we had to follow the band name with “(pronounced ‘zero’)”. You can just imagine hordes of would-be fans getting this wrong, can’t you, and incorrectly asking for “X-ero” at the local record shop. At least the band kept the pronunciation simple when they changed their name.

Blue Öyster Cult (formerly Soft White Underbelly)

Blue Öyster Cult somehow stuck with this gross moniker for two whole years when they formed. Soft White Underbelly took their name from a Winston Churchill speech about Italy being “the soft underbelly of the Axis”, but it sounds weirdly disgusting. Plus, the last thing any rising hard rock band wants to be perceived as is “soft”. The New Yorkers cycled through the names Oaxaca, The Stalk-Forrest Group and Santos Sisters in 1970 before finally settling on their now-iconic name.

Kreator (formerly Metal Militia)

Kreator dodged a bullet here. When the Essen thrashers first formed in 1982, they used the name Metal Militia, taking it from a demo by some obscure American bunch called Metallica. It would have always been a very, very silly name for a band but, as The Four Horsemen became the biggest thing in metal, Kreator would have only found themselves stuck more and more in their shadow. Eventually, most people would have just assumed they’re a tribute band.

Gwar (formerly Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh)

We get it. When Gwar started in 1984, they were the joke side-project of a local hardcore band, so it made sense to give something so unserious a name as frivolous and ridiculous as Gwaaarrrgghhlllgh. However, as the band’s legacy grew and they attracted more and more cult fans, that original name became more and more hilariously shit in hindsight. Their quick evolution to the easier-to-spell Gwar was a merciful one – the short, punchy moniker perfectly reflects their alien lore.

Overkill (formerly Virgin Killer)

Scorpions are a great hard rock band but Virgin Killer is one of the worst album titles of all time, with an artwork that’s unforgivably disgusting. How any band would want to name themselves after it, thus applying all of those predatory overtones to themselves, is baffling. Mercifully though, Overkill soon switched from a Scorpions tribute of a name to a Motörhead ode, and the excessive violence of the word perfectly fits their OTT thrash metal savagery.

Matt Mills

Louder’s resident Cult Of Luna obsessive was still at uni when he joined the team in 2017. Since then, Matt’s become a regular in Prog and Metal Hammer, at his happiest when interviewing the most forward-thinking artists heavy music can muster. He’s got bylines in The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Guitar and many others, too. When he’s not writing, you’ll probably find him skydiving, scuba diving or coasteering.